A historical prisoners’ swap deal was inked on October 2011 between the Islamic Movement of Hamas and the Israeli occupation by a broker of Egypt and international mediation, highlighting the complex nature of the Israeli-Palestinian longstanding conflict.
Under the Swap, often referred to as the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap or Wafaa al-Ahrar, over 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were released by the Israeli occupation in exchange for the handing over of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was captured by the Palestinian resistance in 2006.
The deal held a significant and symbolic gesture that could potentially pave the way for future negotiations between the two sides. However, it did not lead to broader peace agreements, nor reach a reconciliation with ‘Israel. Instead, it pushed Palestinian people not to remain tight-lipped regarding their rights and endeavours of establishing an independent state.
Palestinian resistance, through this deal, managed to compel the Israeli occupation to concede and succumb to the pressures and conditions set by the Palestinians, and from within the dark tunnel, a new beam of hope emerged. This hope has been sown in the hearts of all prisoners and, behind them, the Palestinian people who have struggled, sacrificed, and endured the oppression of the Israeli apartheid regime.
Between 1978 and 2011, official statistics released by the Israeli army indicated that successive Israeli governments conducted approximately 10 prisoner swap deals, during which thousands of Palestinian, Lebanese, and Arab prisoners were released from Israeli prisons in exchange for Israeli soldiers and individuals who were in the custody of Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups.
Predominating Scenes and the “Vanishing Illusion”
In August 2005, Israeli occupation pulled out of the Gaza Strip after 38 years of controlling Gaza. After Seven months, the Islamic Movement of Hamas won the majority of seats in the Palestinian legislative elections, which pushed ‘Israel’ and the United States to cut off aid to the Palestinians due to Hamas’s refusal to recognize ‘Israel’. Since then, the Israeli occupation has resorted to terror and violence against the Gaza Strip, deploying its soldiers at the borders.
In response to that, on the dawn of June 25th, 2006, Palestinian freedom fighters affiliated with the Hamas military wing of Ezz Eddin Qassam bridges targeted an Israeli armoured unit from the Givati unit that was stationed overnight at the Kerem Shalom military site at Gaza fence near Rafah.
Palestinian resistance fighters managed to infiltrate through an underground tunnel that they had previously dug beneath the Gaza fence. This tunnel played a crucial role in ambushing the Israeli forces’ unit despite immediate Israeli aerial reinforcements in the air.
Clashes between the Israeli unit and the resistance fighters erupted immediately, resulting in the killing of two Israeli soldiers and the injury of five others, as well as the capture of Gilad Shalit in a military operation named “Vanishing Illusion.”
This operation is considered one of the most complicated Palestinian militant operations since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, for it witnessed a pivotal transmit in the performance of resistance fighters. It was characterized by the precision and speed of execution, in addition to the complex security measures accompanying the abduction.
Gilad Shalit is the son of Noam and Aviva Shalit, Jewish immigrants of French origins who moved to occupied Palestine several decades earlier and served in the military army. After enlisting in the Israeli army on June 25, 2006, he was captured by Palestinian resistance fighters and subsequently taken to the Gaza Strip by fighters associated with three Palestinian factions.
‘Israel’ failed to locate him for years, despite launching several military offensives on the Gaza Strip. He was eventually exchanged for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners in 2011.
After the “Vanishing Illusion” operation, Israeli occupation imposed a suffocating blockade on Gaza, paralyzing all walks of life, closing the crossings, and targeting infrastructure, notably the power station, leading to deteriorating living conditions for over two million people.
Negotiations and Swap’s Terms
Shalit’s cause had become a national issue in ‘Israel’ and the desire to “bring him back,” is as deeply and genuinely felt by Israeli leadership as the desire to see Palestinian prisoners embracing freedom is felt on the other side.
Many countries, channels, and individuals attempted to play roles in this deal, but Egyptian mediation stood out as the most prominent factor in its success. Despite that, the negotiations between ‘Israel’ and Hamas, mediated primarily by Germany and Egypt, had consistently failed to produce terms acceptable to either side.
The negotiations thus lasted for five years, three months, and nine days. They involved a complex mix of negotiations, mediations, secret and public channels, as well as various means of pressure and intimidation.
During this period, the Israeli authorities utilized their military and intelligence capabilities, drawing on their negotiating expertise and past experiences in exchange deals. They also leveraged their international and diplomatic relations while attempting to exploit the humanitarian aspect for the benefit of their captive soldier in Gaza, Gilad Shalit.
Egypt kept playing a crucial role in these negotiations until they ultimately bore fruit. It succeeded where other mediations had failed. Egypt took on the political, legal, and ethical responsibility for this issue and was tasked with monitoring Israel’s compliance with the agreement terms.
This included providing protection for the released prisoners and ensuring that they were not subjected to re-arrest outside the framework of international and humanitarian law.
The deal then was brokered to include the release of 450 prisoners serving life sentences, in addition to all female detainees in Israeli prisons, totalling 30 women, some of whom were serving life sentences. It also insisted on the release of elderly as well as sick prisoners. Despite Israel’s strong opposition to the release of any prisoners from Jerusalem and 1948-occupied lands, under the swap, 45 prisoners from Jerusalem and 6 prisoners from 1948-occupied lands were enlisted in the agreement’s released prisoners.
Under the agreement, 200 of the released prisoners had to be deported either to the West Bank or Gaza Strip or to Arab countries. However ‘Israel’ had initially demanded the deportation of 500 detainees.
The deal followed two chief phases. By the first phase, Gilad Shalit and 477 other prisoners, including those serving life sentences, were transferred to Cairo. Other 550 Palestinian prisoners were released and Shalit was returned to ‘Israel’ according to the second phase.
The Long-Awaited Moment
On Tuesday, October 18th, 2011, Gilad Shalit was handed to ‘Israel’ by the Hamas movement and 1,000 Palestinian detainees, including 26 Palestinian female prisoners, were released to the Gaza Strip.
Hamas has declared the day of their freedom a national holiday, erecting a giant podium in Gaza City’s al-Katiba Park, where it planned to move the prisoners after they cross into the Gaza Strip from Egypt.
At al-Katiba Park, relatives and tens of thousands of onlookers were chanting for the Palestinian resistance and filling the atmosphere with jubilation upon the prisoners’ release. Moreover, Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniya, and members of the de facto Hamas government in Gaza, in addition to other leaders from different Palestinian factions lined up at the stage welcoming and receiving what they considered a historical breakthrough.
Across the occupied West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas announced three days of celebrations in honour of the returning prisoners.
After this remarkable swap deal, the Gaza Strip witnessed significant milestones that affected the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In 2012, ‘Israel’ launched a second offensive on the Gaza Strip that lasted 8 days and led to the murder of 162 Palestinians.
In 2014, the bloodiest Israeli military aggression on Gaza occurred, lasting 51 days with over 61,000 air, land, and sea strikes pounding Gaza, resulting in the murder of 2,147 Palestinians and the wounding of more than 10,000.
During this aggression, on July 20, 2014, Hamas military wing Ezz Ed-Din al-Qassam Brigades captured the Israeli soldier Shaul Aaron in an operation that took place at the Gaza fence near the Tuffah area. Ten days later, the Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin was captured by the Palestinian resistance in Rafah, located in the southern area of the Gaza Strip.
In 2018, Palestinian masses participated in the peaceful Great Return March near the separation fence east of Gaza, demanding their right to return to their lands occupied by ‘Israel’ in 1948 and the lifting of the Israeli longstanding blockade.
In 2021, the fourth military confrontation with Gaza erupted, lasting 11 days, during which 254 Palestinians were killed, and the resistance fighters managed to fend off Israel’s attacks through several heroic operations.
After the last Israeli aggression on Gaza, the living conditions of two million Palestinians deteriorated. Therefore, Hamas believed that it was time to ink another prisoner swap deal that would lead to the release of hundreds of prisoners and could also potentially ease the blockade and remove the Israeli tight restrictions on Gaza.
Impacts and Future Swap Deal
After the Shalit’s swap deal, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government was at the crosshairs of sharp criticisms and a subject of debate in both political and security circles within ‘Israel’, accusing him of making “unprecedented concessions” to Hamas with questions raised about the high price Tel Aviv had paid and fears of paying similar for any future exchange deals with Hamas remains a recurring concern nowadays.
The Israeli government appears apprehensive about a possible scenario in which it may be compelled to pay a “high” price for the release of two Israeli residents it considers to be alive, namely Avera Mengistu and Hisham Al-Sayed. Additionally, it is concerned about the release of two soldiers it regards as deceased, Hadar Goldin and Aron Shaul.
In April 2018, the Israeli official channel “KAN” unveiled a secret document issued by Israeli security agencies and signed by all security and military leaders, approving the Netanyahu government to proceed with another prisoner swap deal with Hamas.
For years, the Palestinian resistance remained tight-lipped about the Israeli captives’ fate, using it as leverage for potential future negotiations with ‘Israel’ in terms of upcoming swap deals.
Last year, the resistance in Gaza broke its silence and broadcasted recorded footage of the Israeli captive Hisham Al-Sayed, who appeared in a severe state of exhaustion, escalating its psychological warfare against ‘Israel’.
This move was seen as an attempt by the Hamas movement to stir up the stagnant waters in the issue in time ‘Israel’ is grappling with internal crises that have been hindering the inclusion of a new swap deal on Israel’s political agenda.
The messages conveyed through the video, which coincided with the dissolution of the Knesset, the breakup of the government coalition, and the move towards new elections, as well as the deepening internal crises in Israel, likely aimed to exert pressure on decision-makers to negotiate a new prisoner exchange deal under Hamas’ demands, especially that there are other three Jewish captives in the resistance custody, including two soldiers captured during the 2014 Israeli aggression on Gaza.
Currently, Israeli occupation detains approximately 5,000 Palestinians behind prison bars, including 225 children and 45 women. In return, Hamas holds four Israelis in its custody in Gaza, including two soldiers captured during the third Israeli aggression on Gaza in 2014.